Alexis Pascaris

Reflections from COP26

November 23, 2021 | |

On the eve of my departure for the global climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, I sat around the dinner table with my two uncles, grandmother, and grandfather to relish in a home-cooked Italian meal. It was a typical gathering at Nonna’s house in Farmington Hills: the table was adorned with lush green beans and roasted poblano peppers from the garden, our bowls were brimming with handmade pasta smothered in home-canned tomato sauce from bygone harvests, the air was filled with the aroma of our family bakery’s ciabatta bread warming in the wood-fired oven, and the quiet drone of the evening news hummed in the background. 

COP26 protests

Protests on the streets of Glasgow.


 
I savored my mouthfuls of tagliatelle pasta, elongating each moment in an attempt to delay the reality of the taxing journey ahead. Although I was physically present at the table, I was mentally distracted—lost in thought about the climate crisis and how my unavoidable duty to defend my planet was taking me far from the comfort of home. 
 
But amid this emotional unrest and reluctance, my attention was suddenly captured by a TV commercial about “Protecting the Great Lakes.” The first 5 seconds of sweetness quickly turned sour as I realized this was not a commercial about revering Michigan’s natural resources, but rather egregious propaganda by Enbridge Inc. in its ongoing mission to mislead the masses about the threat Line 5 poses to the Great Lakes region. What the commercial failed to proclaim is that a rupture of Line 5 would catastrophically damage the Great Lakes, and that the oil surging through the pipeline produces more atmospheric carbon than several coal-fired power plants combined. My distraction immediately dissolved into distaste; my anger fueled into action. That night I packed my bag in an indignant fury, ready to launch myself into the world’s largest assembly dedicated to organizing global climate action: The United Nations Climate Change Conference.
 
The 26th annual “Conference of the Parties” (COP) takes the trophy for being the most attended climate summit since Paris in 2015, having rallied more than 30,000 individuals from every corner of the globe. These prodigious gatherings resemble a splice between a Parade of Nations and the Summer Olympic Games—but instead of flying flags in honor and people competing for fun, this global summit is an arena for governments to flex their “contributions” and exalt themselves as “climate champions.”

Many describe these gatherings as a three-ringed circus: at the core sit the negotiators, in the surrounding halls are development banks, businesses, and members of civil society, and beyond the confines of the convention center are activists making noise in the streets. My delegation badge, bestowed upon me by the Youth Environmental Alliance in Higher Education, was my golden ticket into this circus. With eyes wide, I spent my days swimming in a sea of collective hope, fighting internal dialogue that oscillated between despair and optimism, and searching for validation that our shared goal to limit global warming to 1.5℃  was still alive. 
 
From the outside looking in, COP26 was poised to be “the beginning of a prosperous era.” Yet from within the circus, it felt like disheartenment rather than triumph. This year’s motto, “The world is watching,” hung like an eerie eye over our shoulders.

COP26 meeting room

Gathered for the good of the planet, at COP26.

For me, COP26 was a harsh reality check. The reality is that the climate crisis is not an abstract tomorrow, but a present day phenomenon that is wreaking havoc on our sisters and brothers, human and non-human. I heard, felt, and witnessed the suffering caused by global north capitalism and fossil fuel dependence, and the consequent climatic impacts on vulnerable nations and peoples. I gazed into the eyes of those who are living with the horror of drought, crop failure, wildfire, extreme weather, sea level rise, starvation, loss, and injustice. These eyes scream urgency for the severity of their circumstance and beg others to take the action needed to salvage the rest of humanity.
 
The unfortunate reality is that although some have yet to experience such loss for themselves, ecosystems have been devastated, communities are grappling with spiritual and cultural forfeiture, and the voices of indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge have been oppressed. Underrepresented and marginalized peoples are in uproar, yet their stories aren’t being told nor is the world properly responding to their suffering. These are the stories I want to share and uplift, because these are the stories that foreshadow our common fate if we fail to act as a unified whole.

Kathleen Brosemer, Environmental Director of the Sault Tribe and standing board member of Oil & Water Don’t Mix, shows the world that Michigan is shaped like a mitten, during her COP26 Line 5 oil pipeline presentation.

The prospect of tremendous loss hits home when we conjure images of the impending oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac imposed by Enbridge’s Line 5. Kathleen Brosemer, Environmental Director of the Sault Tribe and standing board member of Oil & Water Don’t Mix, rang the alarms about the Line 5 crisis during her presentation on “Energy Justice for the Anishinabek” at COP26’s Indgenous People’s Pavilion on November 9th. I sat front and center – eager to hear the truth of the story, rather than relive the mockery I felt when watching Enbridge’s commercial from my seat at Nonna’s dinner table. 

Dressed in her handmade ribbon skirt, Kathleen ushered the audience into a place of deep listening; a place where injustice and cultural loss met at the crossroads of an oil pipeline traversing the sacred waters of Michigan’s Great Lakes. Her pointer grimly traced the 700 miles of shoreline within the ceded territory of the Anishinabek that will be destroyed if Line 5 does not cease operation before it ruptures. But it’s not only the shoreline that will be impacted; a spill at the Straits will have eternal consequences on our ability to fish, hunt, gather, recreate, practice ceremonies, and more. Line 5 is a matter of justice for the Anishinabek peoples and Michiganders alike, as well as a concern of legacy for future generations. And beyond the threat of an oil spill and its manifold repercussions, Line 5 is a major accomplice to the fossil fuel industry – the most notorious of contributors to global climate change.

Despite having been immersed in the despair and anger of many of my fellow COP26 participants, I still hold steadfast to optimism. This optimism doesn’t come from a place of naivety, but rather from a place of insight. Having already conquered the paralysis that comes with pessimism about our global predicament, my colleagues and I from the Youth Environmental Alliance in Higher Education (Y.E.A.H.) lit a candle of hope at COP26 by orienting the climate conversation around optimism and personal agency during our presentation Voices of Optimism: Y.E.A.H. For Climate Action and the S.D.G.s [sustainable development goals]. We as youth struggling with eco-anxiety know firsthand that a dismal mindset won’t achieve anything. And we have risen to remind the world that optimism is the foundation of effective climate action.

Alexis, channeling the possibilities that optimism may bring.

The climate crisis and the social injustice it brings is painfully real, but so is our capacity to redeem ourselves. Signs of this redemption can be found in the Glasgow Climate Pact, which is the resulting agreement born of the COP26 negotiations. Unprecedented levels of climate finance have been mobilized, indigenous peoples rights have been expressly acknowledged, and for the first time in history, provisions have been made to shift away from coal and phase out fossil fuel subsidies. These are significant strides to salute, but we cannot celebrate in earnest until all of creation lives in health, equity, and prosperity. While these agreements are encouraging, they are far from enough. Realizing our goal—to limit global warming to 1.5℃—will require greater ambition, legitimate commitment, collaboration, accountability, transparency, and action. We cannot live on empty promises.

My flight home was a 9-hour stretch of ruminating on a single question: How can we turn international commitments into short term action and long term change? 

The answer didn’t come to me until days after my return, while sitting in silent reverence before my backyard pond, enjoying the privilege of the Keweenaw Peninsula’s clean air and fresh water. The answer is that turning international commitment into short term action demands local level mobilization; it requires galvanizing the grassroots—businesses, municipalities, schools, and community members—into concerted effort. 

Addressing climate change necessitates locally contextual solutions and partnerships, as well as diversity and inclusion in decision-making. It will start with conversations at the dinner table, empowering students in the classroom, making commitments to our neighbors, and staying accountable in our promises to the world. What I learned in Glasgow is that true leadership and change will not come from the top-down … and despite such a dispiriting truth, it serves as the blunt force that will propel local leaders into becoming revolutionary change agents. I’ve learned that we don’t have to wait for climate action and justice—it is in our power to realize the world we wish to see. So let’s make local happen. The world is watching. 

Alexis Pascaris, Clean Energy Policy Specialist

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